As the August 31 deadline for America’s exit from Afghanistan looms, and the evacuation of American citizens and Afghans continues amid worsening chaos at the Kabul airport, the Biden administration is refusing to answer basic questions about the situation on the ground.
The most basic, burning question is, how many Americans are still trapped behind enemy lines? The White House is happy to trot out detailed numbers every day about how many flights have taken off and how many people total have been evacuated in however many hours. But administration officials won’t say with any certainty how many Americans they think are still out there.
(UPDATE: After this column posted Wednesday morning, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a press conference that an estimated 1,500 Americans remain in Afghanistan, but also suggested, without providing any evidence or details, that some 1,000 of these Americans might not want to leave, or may no longer be in the country, or aren’t really Americans. That number, he added, does not include legal permanent American residents or green card holders.)
They’ve also been denying the reality that many Americans are unable to get to the Kabul airport. When White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week that there were no Americans stranded in Afghanistan, it contradicted dozens of news reports chronicling just the opposite: Americans saying they are stranded, unable to get past Taliban checkpoints and into the airport, pleading for help from their government.
Then there are questions about the numbers the White House has put out. On Wednesday, the administration said that 82,300 people have been airlifted from Afghanistan since August 14. But the Pentagon said that only 4,400 Americans have been on those flights, which means that only about 5 percent of those evacuated from Afghanistan so far have been American citizens.
NEW: 19,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan in the 24 hours between 3 AM on 8/24 and 3 AM on 8/25.
We've now evacuated 82,300 people since 8/14, and 87,900 since July.
— Andrew Bates (@AndrewJBates46) August 25, 2021
Before the evacuation began, there were believed to be as many as 15,000 Americans in the country, leaving potentially as many as 10,000 Americans still waiting for evacuation. President Biden and his advisors have had little or nothing to say about how they plan to locate these people and get them to the airport in Kabul, saying only that they are reaching out to everyone they can, telling them, essentially, to find their own way to the airport in Kabul.
There is also a major question about why so few people were evacuated in the first two weeks of August. In his remarks Tuesday, Biden said that 70,700 people had been airlifted since August 14, and 75,000 since the end of July. That disparity was reiterated Wednesday by White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates, who put the figures at 82,300 since August 14 and 87,900 since the end of July.
So why were so few people — only about five thousand — evacuated in the first half of August? By the administration’s own account, some 19,000 people were airlifted from the main airport in the Afghan capital over a 24-hour period beginning early Tuesday morning. Clearly, the U.S. military has the ability to move thousands of people very quickly. Why didn’t this happen sooner? Why did we wait until Kabul was falling to the Taliban to ramp up the evacuation?
In early August, we knew the Taliban were on the march, quickly taking over provinces and headed for Kabul. Why was there no urgency and seemingly no plan at all to get Americans and our allies out of the country? If Biden was always going to stick to the August 31 timeline for U.S. troops’ withdrawal, why weren’t we evacuating at this rate weeks or months ago? Biden needs to answer that question, and he needs to do it now.
Yet another urgent question concerns the vetting process for the many tens of thousands of Afghans who are being flown out of the country by the U.S. military right now. We are told that these are Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, served as interpreters, or fought alongside U.S. soldiers, and that we have a moral responsibility to get them out, as the Taliban will surely come after them and their families.
Almost no one in America disagrees with that. But given the chaos in Kabul and the haphazardly and seemingly unplanned nature of the evacuation, it’s fair to ask whether we have the capability to properly vet this many people this quickly. Biden and other officials keep saying that every Afghan we fly out of the country is being thoroughly vetted at U.S. airbases and processing centers in third countries, and that no one who hasn’t been vetted will be brought to the United States.
But one of the main processing centers for evacuated Afghans is at the Al Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar, where according to a report by Axios this week, conditions are “dire.” A leaked email from U.S. Embassy staff obtained by Axios stated that “Afghans are housed is a living hell. Trash, urine, fecal matter, spilled liquids and vomit cover the floors.”
The hangars where Afghans are being housed have no air conditioning (this is in Qatar, where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit this time of year), inadequate bathroom facilities, and a growing rat problem. Another leaked email stated that the situation at the air base is a humanitarian crisis that “compounds itself with every flight that lands in Doha.”
Under these conditions, is it reasonable to think that U.S. officials can properly vet thousands of Afghans every day? Under normal circumstances, the basic vetting process for Afghans applying for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, is that their identities would be verified and then checked against criminal and national-security databases. The vetting is only as good as the ability of U.S. officials to verify a person’s identity and gain access to criminal and national security information about the applicant.
Is this happening, for example, at the U.S. air base in Qatar? It seems unlikely, but we don’t know because the Biden administration won’t say.
We do know, however, that other countries have already evacuated people who would not have passed the usual vetting process. This week France confirmed it had detained a man evacuated from Afghanistan who has ties to the Taliban. In fact, the man worked as an armed head of a Taliban checkpoint in Kabul. Also this week, the BBC reported that an Afghan man on the United Kingdom’s no-fly list was evacuated to Birmingham, and was not flagged until after he was in the U.K.
Under the circumstances, it seems the U.S. is far more likely to have such security lapses than either France or the U.K., given the sheer number of people the American military is evacuating.
But the president and his advisers will not speak to these issues. They are asking the American people simply to trust them, after having botched the Afghanistan withdrawal and allowed the evacuation to deteriorate into a humanitarian crisis and a security nightmare.
It’s perfectly reasonable to ask all these questions. It is neither reasonable nor acceptable for the Biden administration to refuse to answer — in Biden’s case, literally to turn his back on reporters and walk away, as he did yesterday in what has become an iconic image of this administration.